With only seven of games remaining this season, Aston Villa find themselves 19 points behind last season's final tally. Villa have also already lost two more games than the entirety of last season. There's no denying that this season hasn't gone to plan, but what went wrong?
It would of course be too easy and unfair to simply point the finger at one issue or one individual. This season's shortcomings are due to a wide collection of mistakes, mismanagement and poor player performances.
Let's try to dissect exactly what went wrong for Villa this season..
Upheaval, upheaval, upheaval.
5th August 2021. The exact date when Villa fans across the globe finally accepted that the upcoming season wasn't going to be the same.
The boyhood Villan, the talisman, the club's captain - Jack Grealish, had left Aston Villa Football Club for greener pastures. As Villa fans mourned, the first order of business from the club was to reassure supporters in the form of a video by Christian Purslow. In the now infamous message, the CEO of Aston Villa told fans that Grealish had been replaced by three fantastic footballers.
Whether or not the three Grealish replacements were good signings (more on that later), there was no doubt that the team would have to go through a teething period. Since Villa's time in the championship, all the way through to Villa once again becoming a safe Premier League side, the team was always built around Jack Grealish. The season was starting with some big upheaval..
For years, every signing was made with Grealish in mind. Managerial appointments were made with Grealish in mind. The entire future of the club was also being built, maybe, with Grealish in mind. So when Grealish left, Dean Smith was left to pick up the pieces and put the puzzle back together. Sadly, those pieces never quite fit the same.
On the 7th of November 2021, the last remaining hopes of a local Villa supporter taking the team back to the promised land finally died. Dean Smith was sacked. Deano was a good man who bled claret and blue, and I think every decent Villa fan would stand by me in thanking Smith for his services to his club. However, after five demoralising losses on the bounce, it appeared there was no way back. Even more upheaval was imminent.
Enter Steven Gerrard.
The appointment of Steven Gerrard as Aston Villa head coach was almost the complete opposite of what Villa went for in Dean Smith. The Liverpool legend was arriving with a huge reputation and bringing new eyes and attention to Villa Park.
With Gerrard, the club was taking a risk. A risk we still have no idea will pay off to this day. What Villa did receive though, was star names. The superstar pull of Steven Gerrard meant Villa were able to sign one of the most expensive players in history - Philippe Coutinho.
Make no mistake, this loan deal could have never happened under Dean Smith. We all felt as if Villa were moving in the right direction. However, this turned out be just more upheaval.
The arrival of Coutinho meant less playing time for Emi Buendia. A player who was supposedly brought in to replace Jack Grealish was already being replaced six months later. At least that's how some people may have seen it.
Not only that, but with Coutinho and Gerrard came a new playing style for Villa. A style which is a lot more narrow, and one that rarely makes use of wingers. It's helpful then that Dean Smith had been allowed to sign three or four wingers to play in the Premier League during his time at the club..
This brings us nicely to the next issue.
Starting with the three Grealish replacements. Emi Buendia, Leon Bailey, and Danny Ings. All three players excited the fanbase over the summer, and rightfully so. Every one of these three players had fantastic reputations at their former clubs, and their arrival really softened the blow of losing the club captain. As we approach the end of the season though, have any of them actually been a success?
You'd have to say no.
As we touched on, Buendia was a Smith signing. No matter what Gerrard says, bringing in Coutinho probably said a lot about how he views Emi Buendia. At first he tried to play with both players in the number 10 position, but more recently that has faded away, and Buendia has found himself back on the bench. Not exactly what fans had hoped for from Villa's new owner of the number 10 shirt.
Of course this isn't entirely Buendia's fault. In fact, a lot of people feel sorry for the Argentine. Almost the entire backroom staff who wanted Buendia are now gone, and with Coutinho starting most games, Buendia is struggling to get the time to prove he belongs.
Danny Ings is a similar story. The arrival of Ings was always the most puzzling of the three Grealish replacements. Ollie Watkins had a great season prior and looked undroppable. This led to questions about formations from the very start of the season. Even now, we still don't have an answer to how Villa play with both men in the starting eleven.
The debate of whether Ings and Watkins can work together has littered this terrible season and probably had a negative effect on both strikers. Both Smith and Gerrard have swapped and changed formations constantly in order to try to figure out this puzzle. Truth be told, it's never really worked.
Leon Bailey has of course missed most the season with injury, so his recent poor performances can probably be excused as a bit of bad luck. Fingers crossed that Villa will see the best of him next season. However, if he ends up being shipped out, you can add this name to the list of failed recruitments and questions will need to be asked.
Gerrard's signings of Philippe Coutinho (on loan), Lucas Digne, and Calum Chambers were arguably even more exciting. But have they been a success?
Coutinho, although inconsistent, has undoubtedly been the best signing of the season. He may not be the same magician who terrorised opposition defenses in his Liverpool days, but he still has a fair few tricks up his sleeve. With better players around him, he could be closer to the Coutinho of old. Surely a must-sign player in the summer
Digne you'd have to count as a success as a clear upgrade on Matt Targett. However, letting Targett then leave for Newcastle seems very naive in hindsight. Especially given how injury-prone Digne has been, meaning that 36-year-old Ashley Young has had to play more games at left back than anyone (probably himself included) would have liked.
Whether or not you count the recruitment this season as a failure probably changes from supporter to supporter. It will be surprising though, if there's anybody out there who still believes this year's recruitment was an outright success.
Repeating past mistakes
As exciting as it is to have Coutinho in a Villa shirt, there is a worrying feeling of Villa going down a very well travelled road. Since Gerrard brought in Coutinho, it's very much felt as if the team is built around the little Brazilian, and so it should be!
However, there have been a few games now where it feels like if Coutinho doesn't perform, then neither does Villa. Sound familiar?
Now admittedly, this isn't a big issue yet. But in a season which started with the intention of Villa no longer being a one-man-team, it very much feels like it's going to end with us being exactly that once again.
The 45 minute team
It's easy to point fingers at either of the two head coaches this season. Both Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard have had awful losing runs. It does beg the question though, is this more of an issue with the players rather than the head coaches?
The biggest argument for this being the case is Villa's 45 minute performances. Now if for some strange reason, you're a non-Villa fan reading this, you may be confused.. But Villa fans understand the exact issue at hand here.
Under both Smith and Gerrard, this team seems physically unable to string together a full convincing 90 minute performances. That has to be an issue with players Villa currently have. Otherwise it's a very specific problem to be caused by to two back-to-back coaches!
Sadly, I have no answer for this. What's concerning, is that neither does anybody at the club right now.
Social media backlash
Say what you want about us Villa fans, but you can't say we're not passionate. Sometimes too passionate..
For a while now, the Villa fanbase tends to pick a scapegoat, and this season has been one of the worst for it. It was always Tyrone Mings to begin with, then Watkins, and then the horde moved onto John McGinn. It now feels as if the blame is shifting towards Ezri Konsa. Now I understand that supporters have a right to criticise whoever we like. In fact, yours truly has probably been guilty of it in the past! Not to mention that the players mentioned above have indeed all had terrible runs, so the criticism isn't completely unfair.
This season though, it really feels as if it's getting to the players. Make no mistake, these guys see the comments, and sadly, the abuse that fans post online.
The result is the confidence we saw last season from some of our star players seems to have evaporated. Ollie Watkins replying to an angry supporter, of which Watkins had a complete right to do, is a sign of these cracks appearing.
Now whether you believe that's a fanbase issue or a player issue is completely down to you as an individual. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between.
Does Villa need a team of thicker skinned leaders? Maybe. Although no player should ever have to put up with needless abuse, bad performances will always be rightly criticised. How a player then responds to that can really effect the teams performance levels.
Or should we as a fanbase be better? Again, we have a voice and should be able to use it, as long as it's not hateful of course. Maybe though, we should just try remember how much we loved certain players when they were playing well, before we take to Twitter to rip them a new one. I know that if I was a player, I'm more likely to go out and perform for a fanbase I know adores me.
Well how do we summarise all of that? As we can see, there's no one single factor as to why this season has fallen apart. Instead, an avalanche of small problems have come crashing down and left Villa in a bit of a mess.
There's no doubt this is recoverable though, and it's not all doom and gloom. Dean Smith's Grealish led Villa side is a thing of the past, we now push ahead with project Gerrard. The king is dead, long live the king.
Villa won't be relegated and the owners are reportedly very keen to back Gerrard this summer. There's also been positives to be found with the younger players breaking through. Jacob Ramsey in particular has been outstanding, while Cameron Archer has been showing his worth at Preston. When it comes to recruitment however, this time, Villa need to get it right.
This team has shown, in 45 minute spells at least, that they can create some real magic. A few changes to the squad here and there may just be enough to finally get Villa back into Europe.
The club need to be careful though. Villa can't simply keep throwing cash at the problem in every transfer window.
Not to add any unnecessary pressure, but it does sort of feel it's now or never for this team. Here's hoping that this summer, Gerrard and the board build a team that we can all be proud of. Onwards and upwards!
Up The Villa!